Drones harm more than help
CANBERRA — Over the weekend, defying death threats from the militants whose writ is law in the region, former cricketer and presently Pakistan’s most popular political leader Imran Khan led but had to abort a march into the country’s northwestern tribal areas to protest against U.S. drone strikes that have killed between 2,000-3,000 people. The buzz of the U.S. fleet of Predator and Reaper drones that at any moment can let loose their deadly arsenal of Hellfire missiles is a familiar terror in the sky for the people of Waziristan.
We live in an age of technological warfare coexisting uneasily alongside the use of machetes on an industrial scale in Rwanda in 1994 and commercial aircraft as lethally effective delivery systems on Sept. 11, 2001. Its high-tech arsenal enables the U.S. to project military power to the remotest corners of the world, distancing combat forces from the victims of their firepower. The U.S. has more than 7,000 drones today compared to 50 just a decade ago. By the end of next year there will be more U.S. Air Force personnel operating drones than flying planes.
Such technological prowess holds the seductive allure of war and morality on the cheap.
But is it? Moral deliberations and legal accountability rooted in social purposes cannot be outsourced to robots and machines.
Drones have greater endurance, cost less, reduce the risk to U.S. soldiers to zero, and kill fewer innocent civilians. They can be flown for long hours over treacherous, inhospitable terrain and vast distances. Many al-Qaida and Taliban commanders, it is claimed, have been killed, captured, dispersed and driven deep underground, their leadership decapitated and global networks disrupted, thereby preventing numerous terrorist and insurgent attacks.
But according to the New American Foundation’s data, since 2004, only 49 high-value militant leaders have been killed in strikes (accounting for just 2 percent of all drone killings). The rest have been largely low-level combatants.
Over 80 percent of deaths by drones have come under U.S. President Barack Obama. He presides over the regular Tuesday counterterrorism meeting in the White House and signs off personally on additions to the kill list. His self-belief betrays a supreme self-confidence bordering on moral-intellectual arrogance (a trait that tripped him up badly in the first presidential debate). He wields the power of life and death over citizens and foreigners without judicial review or independent accountability. A Daily Mail columnist dubs him the “Lord High Executioner.”
What is the moral distinction between war, pre-emptive execution by bureaucratic decisions made in secret and murder? Does targeted killing represent an extraterritorial extension of the normative authority of the state to cover gaps in the existing legal order, or is it a covert attempt to breach the limits of the legal competence of a state in foreign jurisdictions?
Top legal experts who had eloquently condemned the torture practices under U.S. President George W. Bush have serially defended the Obama targeted killings as consistent with applicable laws of war. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder argues that the U.S. Constitution “guarantees due process, not judicial process” for U.S. citizens. That requirement is satisfied by the conditions attached to putting someone on the kill list: The person must be a senior operational leader of al-Qaida or associated forces; capture is not feasible; and the operation is conducted in conformity with applicable laws of war principles.
There are numerous legal, moral and strategic problems with the use of drones to kill the enemy. An exhaustive new study by the law schools of Stanford and New York universities concludes that they have traumatized and terrorized an entire population. They have undermined respect for the rule of law and international legal protection. They set dangerous precedents for facilitating the recourse to lethal force around the world even as lethal drone technologies are being developed by several countries and export control barriers are softening. More than 50 countries (and counting) now have the use of drones. On Sunday, Israel shot down an unarmed and unidentified drone that entered its airspace from the Mediterranean.
They violate the sovereignty of Pakistan, a country with which the U.S. is not at war. They also violate the requirements of distinction, proportionality, humanity and military necessity under international humanitarian law. Strikes on mosques, funerals, schools and meetings of elders; signature strikes based not on individually identified targets but on behavior patterns (is a group of young men, in a country where every adult male has a beard and carries a gun, performing jumping jacks engaged in innocent fun of youth or engaged in terrorist training?); and strikes on rescuers and first responders are particularly troubling. The classification of all military-age males as combatants, based on the logic of guilt-by-association, reinforces concerns on proportionality.
U.N. special rapporteurs, too, have argued that extrajudicial killings using drones pose a challenge to international law, may constitute war crimes and risk developing a “PlayStation mentality” to killing. Acts of extrajudicial assassination may also be illegal under U.S. domestic law.
The convenience of drones produces the perverse incentive of lowering the threshold of the resort to lethal violence by reducing the risks and costs of war. Because political leaders do not have to agonize over putting sons and daughters in harm’s way, they can make decisions on war and peace without the earlier heavy heart.
Yet there is no clear evidence that they have made America safer overall. They expand the pool of angry and twisted young men for recruitment into the ranks of jihadists. Faisal Shahzad, the failed Times Square bomber of May 2010, when asked about potential innocent victims of his plot, replied: “U.S. drone strikes don’t see children, they don’t see anybody. They kill women, children; they kill everybody.” Drones have made the U.S. more hated than India in Pakistan.
Another cost is the deepening antagonism of several Western as well as Islamic peoples toward the U.S. Public opinion polls show that most Americans support but most others oppose drone strikes, often by substantial margins. Being unilateral, they reinforce the widespread perception of the U.S. as a self-concerned state that acts without consideration for others.
The moral qualms over a president claiming the right to kill foreign and U.S. citizens based on a secret process with no contestability, checks and balances have grown and deepened. The inflection point of diminishing utility and returns has been reached. The U.S. risks becoming world leader in killing people with no connection to 9/11, to al-Qaida or to any other terrorist group. On the balance of consequences test, drone strikes are doing more harm than good.